Glenn Ellis

*For years, I have been filled with anxiety, as I watched explosion of the “cottage industry” of herbalists; naturopaths; “holistic” doctors; and the like. Now, some of will quickly point out that I, too, was once mostly known for my contribution to this growing population. But, like any good sinner, I have repented, and vowed to sin no more. (Thank you, Dr. Edward S. Cooper!)

Let me explain, over thirty years ago, after being a Pre-Med student, I made a decision not to go on to medical school, and direct my interests and talents to supporting the ability of people to take better control of their own lives and their health. This led me down a long path (that included years of working with Dick Gregory), and ultimately to being, what some consider an important voice in health advocacy and health education.

Included in my journey were “stops” as an herbalist; homeopath’ Health Store Owner; health columnist and lecturer; and a media commentator.

The most disturbing part of these experiences, as a “sinner”, was the speed at which people were prepared to do, or take, whatever I suggested for them to take to “cure what ails them”. Never mind that they were under the care of a medical doctor for serious medical conditions.

The resulting effect on me was to do two things: 1) do everything I could to make sure that anything I said or wrote was based on as much scientific and/or researched information as possible. I read and study as much as any medical doctor or scientist. 2) I strongly adhere to the premise that there is no “alternative” to a medical doctor. This has led me to be a strong proponent of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). What it means is that I don’t do, say, or suggest anything to anyone without the knowledge and/or approval of their medical doctor.

I shudder when I hear of people who brag about ignoring their doctors’ recommendations because either “they don’t believe in Doctors’ medicine”, or because “an herbalist looked into their eyes” and said that they had just the thing for their medical condition.

I recently heard a story about a tragic example of how wrong these types of decisions can go, and how costly (in terms of life and permanent risk to health).

For years, I have not written or spoke publicly on my disdain for what I consider to be charlatan (somebody who falsely claims to have special skill or expertise) behavior in the name of “healing’ people learn the natural way. But as these incidents continue to happen more and more, and families are devastated by the senseless loss or injury of a loved one, I am silent no more. I have to live with my own conscience. I have been given the privilege of being a source of trusted and valued information, and so add this to the growing list of topic I will write about.

The use of dietary supplements has risen tremendously in recent years. Increasingly, people now take herbs and other “natural” substances in addition to vitamins and minerals. These so-called nutritional products are not as strictly regulated under the law as prescription drugs, however, and to use them wisely, consumers should know about the risks and benefits associated with supplements. Dietary supplements are billed as immune triggers, weight-loss wonders, “brain power”, muscle-expanding elixirs, and much more. They can be bought from the shelves of health food stores, drug stores, and supermarkets. They are a category of nutritional additives that once included just vitamins and minerals, but now also encompass herbs, amino acids, fish oils, hormones, and many other substances. Not only is the array of supplements dazzling, but also their popularity is soaring.

Sales of vitamins and minerals in America alone have reached $25 billion annually! And with the USA accounting for barely 5% of the world’s population, we buy over 30% of all of these supplements. The reason for this is partly as a result of rising medical costs which encourages both prevention and self-care. Like many things, African Americans, and other underserved communities, are impacted disproportionately, and turn to these “alternatives” in larger relative numbers.

Even science has lent credibility to a handful of the claims made for dietary supplements. Some studies have suggested, for example, that vitamins may help prevent serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. All this has fed a media frenzy regarding the latest research into natural remedies. We see Madison Avenue using people, places and things we care about to appeal to our emotions, just as would in selling us cars and “happy meals”. I was shocked (even though I shouldn’t have been) to hear a prominent national civil rights leader as a spokesperson for a “new” herbal product for men’s prostate conditions.

At the same time, supplements of all kinds have moved from niche retailers such as health food stores into drugstores and supermarkets, making them more widely available and also more appealing to the mainstream public. And the claims have gone far beyond what science has shown, appealing to everybody from athletes to people with chronic diseases.

“True” herbalism encompasses scientific testing, honest reporting of the results, and safe use of effective herbs by informed practitioners and the public. It also includes the production and ethical marketing of herbal products. True herbalism, which brings honor to the wonder-filled world of plants, does exist as part of the science of pharmacology. However, there is a dark side to herbalism.

Herbal medicine has long been an alternative for those seeking health-related remedies without using powerful pharmaceuticals. While these herbs tend to have a lesser degree of side effects, they can still cause adverse reactions if used improperly.

Herbal medicines, like other forms of medications, can sometimes contain other additives to help preserve the pill or enhance the effect of the herb. It is important to be aware of what is in your herbal medicines, particularly if you are allergic to certain additives. This information is sometimes readily available on the bottle; at other times, you may have to do some research before beginning to ingest any herb.

For the many untested pills, capsules, powders, and liquids that remain on the shelves, it pays to be cautious. Here are a few tips for dealing with the supplement conundrum:

  • Before taking a supplement, find out what evidence supports its advertised benefits-and dangers.
  • It is a good idea to glean information from a variety of sources, not just one book or magazine article.
  • Learn what “real” scientists know about safe dosages and do not exceed them.

Somewhere, as you read this column, there is someone either dead or suffering from not having the benefit of this information.

Everyone knows consumers buy supplements to prevent or treat what ails them in order to escape the sometimes adverse, allergic, or dizzying side effects they’ve had from prescription drugs. The reason people buy supplements is to have a better quality of life. Consumers also want a safer quality of supplements and foods. People buy supplements also out of fear.

The real questions are not whether the supplements make you healthier, but are they safe? Are you sure that the person “prescribing” seems to know what they’re talking about, but are they really trained in helping you or are you just a good customer? How do these people become a “Doctors” anyway?

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take care of yourself, and live the best life possible!

Glenn Ellis lectures and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics, including health education and health promotion.

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